Table for Five: Ha’azinu
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass…
Bracha Goetz, Author of 40 spiritual children’s books
This week’s Torah is Ha’azinu – which means “Listen in!” We are the audience getting to listen in along with the heavens and the earth. All the Children of Israel stand before Moses as he sings. This is the intro of the 70-line song, the last – and the lasting lesson – that the Source of the Universe has given to Moses to share on his final day of life on earth before he blesses us, and then climbs Mount Nebo, departing from this world.
We forget many things, but even elderly people with dementia remember the songs from their childhood. What is this lasting and most basic lesson provided in the form of song – so it can go straight through to our essence? Remember that everything has been given for our greatest pleasure. And our whole purpose here is to live with this loving awareness.
Lessons from the Almighty are given to help us grow in the most wondrous way possible. This is the case, whether it’s through the gentle and nourishing moisture of dew, the steady and repetitive rhythm of rain, or the disruptive storm winds that can knock us over. What flows from the Source of All is ultimately to help each of us blossom to our full and unique potential.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University
The Torah’s image of Moses’ lesson being like rain seems especially poignant for us in the West as we live through a serious draught. We deeply crave rain to put out the many fires that are destroying forests, homes, and full communities and also to nurture nature back to life.
If that is true for us literally at this time, it is also true metaphorically, which is undoubtedly how Moses meant these verses. He is asserting that living by the beliefs and actions that he is about to proclaim can put out the fires in our souls that lead us to do bad things to ourselves or others by worshipping other gods (money, fame, drug induced highs, etc.). Conversely, his lessons can nurture the better parts of us, as rain does the soil, enabling us to flourish as both individuals and as a community.
What are those lessons? They begin with understanding God, the source of our being, as moral and demanding morality of us. They also include recognizing our long history of a covenanted relationship with God, one that we spurned at times, turning to other gods and values, and we suffered for that. In the end, though, that relationship will survive, for forgiveness is part of what it means to be in a marriage with God.
In the year to come, may the lessons of this poem indeed be the rain that extinguishes our destructive fires and nurtures what is best in us.
Romain Hini-Szlos, Photographer, rhsgallery.com
Ha’azinu is the last parsha of the last book of the Torah (Devarim) that we read on Shabbat. This is Moshe going over the laws of the first four books.
I believe there are two reasons for this fifth book: First, Moshe can be compared to a mother who is sending her children on a long trip. As they are about to leave, the parent calls the children back, giving them more advice or warning before they go, as an excuse to delay their departure. He simply wants more time with them.
The second reason is that throughout the last book, Moshe tries to hint to the Jewish people that he won’t be able to enter Israel because of Hashem’s decree, unless all of Bnei Israel decides to pray to Hashem on his behalf. Sadly, that would be the only way that Hashem would annul His decree against Moshe entering the land.
In this quote, Moshe is again hinting something to Bnei Israel: He is praying that the words he is about to say will touch every person as easily as the rain that touches everything in its path. Perhaps Moshe hopes that the flow of his words will help the Jewish people gently and clearly understand his subtle request that they pray on his behalf, like a dew drop that gently appears on the surface of a leaf on a clear night. And perhaps, the idea of a nation praying for Moshe would grow into something big, like storms and winds that help vegetation grow.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA professor of Hebrew
Although on the face of it these verses constitute an introduction to Moses’ words of last will and testament, many commentaries understand them to also refer to the words of Torah that Moses teaches. In this sense, Moses is asking the Nation of Israel to heed his teachings of God’s Torah just as the heavens and the earth heed the command of God. This understanding of these verses is given weight on account of their use of the word “lekach” (lesson) which also notably appears in Proverbs 4:2, “For I have given you a good ‘lekach;’ do not abandon my Torah.” Likewise, the imagery of nourishing rain and dew evokes the midrashically significant metaphor of Torah as life-giving water.
Moses poses a paradox: how is it that in pursuing life, the Nation of Israel can neglect the very source of their life, God’s Torah? After all, God has given Himself to His people, “For God’s portion is his people” (Deut 32:9). How can we disregard such a gift? Notably, the word for portion is “chelek,” a Hebrew word possessed of the same root letters as “lekach.” God threw in his lot with Israel by giving us a portion of His very self, His “lekach,” His Torah.
In accordance with the theme of this parasha, let us take some time to find renewed gratitude for the Torah and to rededicate ourselves to it. Let us find purpose and vitality in the gift of a God who shares His wisdom with us.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD, Fountainview at Gonda Westside
The exquisite exordium that opens Moses’ final song thrills me. Every year, I am both stunned and moved—as I am intended to be—by its literary elements: its parallel structure, elevated language, and the string of evocative similes about everyday natural miracles that transcend their literalness.
Calling on the cosmic energy of the heavens and the earth to listen and hear, following as it does the custom of the ancient Near East of summoning two witnesses, bespeaks the urgency of Moses’ last message, imparted on the last day of his life. In image after image of generative energy, the man who once described himself as slow of speech and tongue calls to us across time and space to understand the power of this final lesson: just as water gives life, so does Torah.
The effects of rain are not immediately noticeable. Even in drought-stricken California, we do not always appreciate the slow absorption of dew, miraculous raindrops, the unseen process of unfolding seeds and the small miracles of emerging grasses. So, too, we do not always perceive the impact of Torah on our lives.
Moses’ words at the end of his life’s journey and the beginning of this Shmita year remind us to open our hears to the harvesting of his wisdom and to acknowledge our vulnerability. And they call us to acknowledge this Divine gift: Torah offers life itself—if only we will receive it.
With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Romain Hini-Szlos, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, and Rabbi Janet Madden.
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